Brewing Poverty And Violence In El Salvador

News & Politics

In advance of his visits to several Latin American countries, President Bush has focused public attention on U.S. aid to developing countries. As a result, the real purpose of his tour has gone unnoticed. Bush is using his time in Mexico, Peru, and El Salvador to promote neoliberal economic policies that actually serve to exacerbate inequality and undermine democratic institutions in countries throughout the region.

El Salvador, in particular, provides a case study in how Bush's version of economic "modernization" has failed the poor.

Geography has never been George W.'s strong suit, but one might expect him to try being sensitive to El Salvador's human rights concerns, given that a U.N. Truth Commission blamed the right-wing governments supported by his father for 90 percent of the approximately 80,000 murders committed through the country's civil war. Instead, President Bush's visit falls on the day normally reserved for commemoration of Archbishop Oscar Romero's assassination. The army's death squads gunned down Romero, a stalwart defender of the country's poorest citizens, during a mass on March 24, 1980.

Ten years after the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords ended more than a decade of bloody conflict, U.S.-supported policies continue to impede progress toward human rights. Rather than atoning for its sponsorship of Cold War crimes, the United States has overseen a type of economic transformation that punishes the same communities most victimized during El Salvador's time of violence. Under the supervision of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC, the conservative Salvadoran governments of the 1990s hacked social services and sold off state enterprises in telecommunications and utilities to private interests.

Businesses dramatically raised costs to consumers. At the same time, the government led drives to bust the unions that fight to keep wages in the "modernizing" economy from falling to sweatshop levels. Over the past months it announced the firing of 10,000 workers in the public sector -- a dramatic loss of jobs in El Salvador's small labor economy.

Contrary to the objectives of the U.N.'s International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, the forum which prompted Bush to increase foreign aid, these economic policies worsen living conditions for the majority of Salvadorans. The United Nations Development Program reports that El Salvador's increasing levels of income inequality rank among the highest in the world. Even the official government measures show that half of the country lives in poverty. Many Salvadorans can provide for their basic needs only because of money sent back from relatives who have emigrated to the United States. Indeed, with a regressive tax structure and a lack of public assets creating huge debts for the government, the economy as a whole depends on the $1.9 billion a year in remittances for its survival.

Democracy is also a casualty in the neoliberal regime. Members of the Bush administration have embraced the conservative ARENA party as their ideological brethren. Bush himself praises his Salvadoran counterpart, Francisco "Paco" Flores, as a "brilliant young leader" and a "breath of fresh air." But ARENA frequently shows contempt for free speech and the rights of opposition parties. When the rival FMLN gained a plurality in the Legislative Assembly in 2000, ARENA led right-wing parties in refusing to let them assume the presidency of that body. More recently, after a prominent health-care union led several days of street marches protesting the January cutbacks, they found their offices occupied by police. These are exactly the type of abuses that Bush would need to remedy if he were serious about his proclaimed desire to "strengthen democratic institutions" in El Salvador.

In the context of economic turmoil and political abuses, human rights have again become endangered. Due to an epidemic of street crime, which has given the country one of the highest per capita murder rates in the hemisphere, life for most citizens is as dangerous now as during the war. ARENA persistently attempts to undermine the Human Rights Ombudsman, an office created by the Peace Accords as a major institutional safeguard against future abuses. And the process of reckoning with past trauma has been difficult. Against the advice of organizations such as Amnesty International, the right rushed an amnesty law through the Assembly in the wake of the U.N. Truth Commission report detailing many of the war's horrors. With few exceptions, those responsible for atrocities never faced justice.

For its part, the Bush administration harbors figures like Elliott Abrams, who, as a chief Reagan spin-doctor on Central American affairs, steadfastly denied that horrific abuses ever happened. Mentioning one notorious site of terror, The New York Times noted in January that the families of those villagers massacred at El Mozote have long been denied the "foundations of healing" -- the prosecution of criminals, the official naming of victims, and appreciation of the urgent need for relatives "to possess a shard of bone to bury."

As neoliberals rush to forget the past, they may yet provoke its repetition. Francisco Flores has advocated that U.N. to return to conduct a "closing ceremony" for the Peace Accords, asserting that "the agreement to fortify democracy in the country has been completed." Furthermore, he has explained that with this matter settled, he will have nothing further to discuss with the leading opposition party.

Neither Flores nor Bush seem to understand that the pursuit of democracy and human rights must always be an on-going process.

In January, Hector Dada Hirezi, a leading commentator and past member of a transitional national government, argued that Salvadorans are finding the Peace Accords, based on the premise of ending war without producing winners and losers, being supplanted by an economic system in which the poor lose and economic elites win. More ominously, a major human rights institute at the University of Central America in San Salvador has warned that the government, in charting its present course, is "cooking a broth of violence." The rhetoric of poverty reduction has long been a part of U.S. policy in Latin America. While foreign aid can be used to good ends, allowing humanitarian gestures to disguise the policies that continue to brew poverty and injustice constitutes a recipe for crisis. Bush need only consider Argentina, a past neoliberal poster child whose dollarized currency and foreign debt spiraled into economic meltdown. Or go no further than El Salvador itself, where the issues that provoked the country's long civil war look all too similar to the poverty, inequality, and corruption that persist today.

Mark Engler is an independent writer and activist from Des Moines, Iowa. He has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, as well as the Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University.

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